Today is the birthday of the most successful ventriloquist in history (I think it’s safe to say) Edgar Bergen (1903-1978)
What makes a great artist great is not only great chops, but a great spirit. Bergen may not have been the best technical ventriloquist in the world but is deservedly the most famous because he created great characters and wrote great material. If he’d not been a ventriloquist he would have been remembered simply as a very funny comedian or joke writer. In reality, like all ventriloquists, he did a job more than twice as hard as the average comedian. He was both straight man and the character comedian in his act. These qualities also explain his tremendous success on radio, where excellence as a ventriloquist would have been superfluous and he was more of a voice-over comedian like Mel Blanc.
Born in Chicago in 1903, Bergen got his show business start feeding a furnace and sweeping up in a theatre. He then moved up to piano player and projectionist for silent films. By 8th grade he’d gotten so good at mimicking animals and people that someone told him “you must be a ventriloquist.” He had to look the word up in the dictionary.
The concept was interesting to him. He went to see the Great Lester (vaudeville’s premier ventriloquist) perform, and also bought a book: Hermann’s Wizard’s Manual, which divulged some of the trade secrets. A high school talent show precipitated the creation of Charlie McCarthy. With a performance coming up, Bergen drew a little picture of a newsboy and gave it to a woodcarver to work from. This first Charlie very different from the one we know. He was an Irish newsboy, more of street urchin. Bergen, who’d been about to flunk out of school, was nevertheless a hit in the school show. based on his promise as a performer, a sympathetic teacher helped him graduate.
Bergen started to work little theatres around Chicago, the Chautauqua circuit, churches, schools etc. He worked small time Orpheum (called Junior Orpheum) in winter. During summer, when theatres were closed he attended classes at northwestern university. One of their early bits had Edgar as a doctor finding Charlie sick on a park bench:
BERGEN: Charlie, you have a temperature of 102.
CHARLIE: If it makes 104, I’ll sell.
BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat.
CHARLIE: Oh, so you’re a painter. I knew you weren’t a doctor.
BERGEN: I’m going to paint your throat with a silver nitrate solution. Open your mouth. (takes out a blue bottle and swab)
CHARLIE: Do I have to swallow the whole thing?
And so. Nearly everything that came out of Charlie’s mouth was a joke. By 1926 Bergen was doing a 15 minute turn at the Palace. The act was a big hit there, and a tour of the Keith circuit followed. In 1930, he did his first films, a series of Vitaphone shorts which essentially preserved some of the vaudeville bits.
Lucrative nightclub dates came next. When Bergen was booked at the Helen Morgan Club, he felt he needed something to revamp his act, to give it the sort of class that would reflect the nightclub environment. It was then that he changed Charlie’s outfit from a newsboy’s to a top hat, tuxedo and monacle. The nightclub dates were hugely popular. Bergen’s material could be quite racy but because he put it in the mouth of a dummy, he got away with it. Alfred Lunt and Lyne Fontanne were big fans, as was Cary Grant, who offered to manage him.
In 1936 Bergen debuted on Rudy Vallee’s radio show. the act was so successful that in 1937 he got his own show, the Chase and Sanborne Show, which ran for 20 years. Without a doubt their most popular guest was W.C. Fields, who made numerous “appearances” between 1938 and 1944. The antagonistic relationship between Fields and Charlie was immortalized in the 1939 film You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man.
Another notorious guest was Mae West, who in caused a scandal in 1937 with her characterization of Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Other Bergen/McCarthy films included The Goldwyn Follies (1938), Song of the Open Road (1944), and I Remember Mama (1947 )which featured Bergen sans dummy.
Other characters devised by Bergen over the years included Mortimer Snerd, Lars Lindquist, and two hens, Maisie and Matilda. He continued to appear in night clubs and on television in the 60s and 70s.
The film which contains his last screen appearance The Muppet Movie (1979) is also, appropriately dedicated to him.
DISTINGUISHED PROGENY: Television and movie actress Candice Bergen of Murphy Brown, Carnal Knowledge, etc, is Edgar’s daughter.
To learn more about vaudeville, including top stars like Edgar Bergen, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,